Brad Plumer examines the record. It's kind of puzzling. One would hope for something as simple as "he talks a good game, but it's all a huge lie!!!!!" but it's not all a huge lie. But there's little in the way of a coherent pattern. As on other domestic policy issues, a lot of McCain's thinking on these subjects doesn't look to me like thinking at all; more like a baseline conservatism-without-real-commitment plus sporadic pique-driven deviations. This is kind of distressing:
Trying to explain McCain's wildly erratic record on environmental issues is a maddening task. "We never know where he's going to come from," says Debbie Sease, the legislative director of the Sierra Club. "As a general rule, on land and conservation issues ... he tends to be pretty good. But he's a doctrinaire conservative on the role of government in protecting people from pollution."
That kind of fits the idea of trying to be a TR for the 21st century. But I think it stands the merits of these issues on their heads. I think even pretty serious libertarians would tell you that some kind of regulations aimed at preventing pollution make sense. On land issues, by contrast, the merits are often murky even from an environmental point of view. In theory you can take land and put it in the hands of benevolent regulators who protect it from over-logging, unsound mining, etc. More often, though, you put it into the hands of regulators who work for politicians who take
bribes campaign contributions from logging and mining interests and wind up letting the companies have their way with the land at sub-market prices.
The overall picture of the domestic McCain continues to be of a kind of ignorant conservatism punctuated by bursts of thoughtless stabs at reform.